It's debate season, and the Philadelphia Union are providing plenty of topics to debate. Here at Brotherly Game we prefer to rationally debate issues over making patently false statements and insulting people. Call us dull. One such Union debate is the disappearance of CJ Sapong, and whether or not the Union need him to make an MLS Cup run.
Sapong's season has been a puzzler. He started the season red hot, scoring five goals in the first ten games and putting himself in the United States National Team conversation as the Union rode the wave to first place in the East. Since May 14th however, Sapong has only scored one goal in the run of play and the Union have taken a nose dive all the way to sixth place in the conference. It's safe to say the league has figured out how to contain CJ, but do the Philadelphia Union need a goal scoring Sapong to make a deep playoff run, or can they live with other play he brings to the game?
I turned to long time writing partner Matt Reppert for thoughts on the issue and this is how the conversation went:
Matt Reppert: Having a CJ that is consistently finding the net is vital to the Union's ability to go deep in the playoffs. Sapong is on the field to do one thing. Score goals. When he's not doing that the Union attack starts to suffer (as it obviously has been) it also puts more pressure on the midfield to try and make up the deficit which means that rather than supplying Sapong, they are carrying him. As good as Chris Pontius, Fabian Herbers, Tranquillo Barnetta and company have been they aren't going to be able to shoulder the load like that for very long.
Jared Young: I can't sit here and say that Sapong scoring goals wouldn't be a difference maker for the Union in the playoffs. But I think there is a bigger issue to solve. The midfield, led by Pontius, Barnetta, and now Herbers has been producing enough goals, but it's the defense that needs to be fixed. Jim Curtin has put too much pressure on his young defense by employing the press too often, and it's no longer working. It's time for Curtin to recognize he doesn't have the back line to play that style and to sit the midfield deeper and protect the goal. This team can't go deep in the playoffs if they play an open game. Sapong scoring or not scoring won't matter. In fact, a closed defense would open up space for Sapong on the counter and improve his chances of scoring. That's critical space that he is not finding right now.
MR: The problem I see with having the midfield sit deeper against the opposing teams is the fact that unless they play a quick counter attacking game (something that the Union have rarely been good at), Sapong isn't really a burner type of player - he's the guy that has some ability to muscle opposing players off the ball and draw some fouls all the while slipping in to an advantageous spot to score. One major issue I've seen with Sapong is that he's not getting calls, and he has yet to adjust his game. Sapong gets mugged nearly every game by the opposing team's defense, and that style of play has probably worn on him quite a bit as the season has gone on. The midfield dropping back may allow CJ a bit more space, but the fact remains that if he is unable to take advantage of it due to lack of speed from the team it's essentially worthless to the Union. The defense leaking goals has been a HUGE issue, but given the fact that the Union are have been consistently starting three rookies (Josh Yaro, Ken Tribbett and Keegan Rosenberry) mistakes are going to happen at times. Can you honestly tell me how dropping the midfield back to cover the defense will somehow mean more goals?
JY: I'm not thinking the Union will score more, but I am hoping they leak fewer goals. That's the priority I see. I think back to the run that Montreal made in the CONCACAF Champions League. A little lucky, but they recognized they would not survive going toe to toe with Mexican clubs so they bunkered and survived. To go far in this tournament, Curtin has to recognize he doesn't have the horses on defense to make a deep run and protect them first. At this point he had to realize the team can't match up with the best teams in MLS. If he does, then they won't be so reliant on Sapong and the offense. So what is your take on Sapong's struggles? Why can't the midfield find him where he needs the ball?
MR: Honestly it seems an issue with both the style the Union play and with Sapong himself. Sapong is routinely mugged by one or two center backs on the defense, and despite his physical nature Sapong isn't going to win those battles that often. He's going to get worn down and beaten up, which in my opinion is what's been happening. The style of play that the Union have seems to leave CJ on an island by himself, and there have been more than a few times the midfield has tried a long pass or even a cross to him but he's had no one to help draw the attention of the defense. Furthermore, Sapong may simply be stuck inside his own head. The truly great strikers are never bothered by slumps, and perhaps Sapong is being brought down by his lack of production and that is affecting his play. Think how Jack McInerney was lighting the league up in 2013 and then fell off and never regained his form. Sapong is going through a slump, and rather than just go out and play he instead is perhaps TRYING to break out of his slump, and every game without a goal is hurting him mentally more and more.
JY: I've heard it said that Curtin uses Sapong as a decoy to open things up for the attacking midfield. It's a theory for why are doing all of the goal scoring, but I think it's more of a confidence slump. I don't think Curtin is purposely reducing Sapong's opportunities in front of goal - that would be a waste. Sapong needs to shoot close to the goal, and the Union don't have that attacker that can break down the defense as deeply as Sapong needs.
So hey, I think a hot Sapong would be great for a Union playoff run but I don't think they need it. What they need is to fix the defensive lapses. You still think Sapong is the key?
MR: I do. When Sapong is scoring it usually means the team around him is performing at a high level as well (see first half of the season). I think it's safe to say that if CJ doesn't find his scoring boots before the end of the season, the Union aren't going that far in the playoffs.
JY: Admittedly, I'm in a bit of a dream land with my wish for a defensive focus. Curtin hasn't shown the least inkling he's open to changing anything, so ultimately I think you're right. The Union need to unlock CJ to make a deep playoff run. There are other ways to go about it. Better ones in my opinion, but the reality is this team will need to score goals at a fast rate to advance.
So what do you think? Take our poll and let us know how you stand in the comments section below!